Labeling Fed Ex Drivers as Independent Contractors Does Not Necessarily Make Them So

Although we generally confine our blog posts to developments in the law from Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama (as well as law firm announcements), this California case is worthy of comment.

In Alexander v. FedEx Ground Package System, Inc., a major decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (August 27, 2014) the Court determined that Federal Express could not necessarily avoid claims by the drivers for employment expenses and unpaid wages under California law, or duck federal liability under FMLA, by calling the drivers “independent contractors”:

“Labeling the drivers “independent contractors” in FedEx’s Operating Agreement does not conclusively make them so when viewed in the light of (1) the entire agreement, (2) the rest of the relevant “common policies and procedures” evidence, and (3) California law.”

This decision could have broad application nationally to other types of claims against Fed Ex. As the Court stated, “As a central part of its business, FedEx Ground Package System, Inc. (“FedEx”), contracts with drivers to deliver packages to its customers. The drivers must wear FedEx uniforms, drive FedEx-approved vehicles, and groom themselves according to FedEx’s appearance standards.  FedEx tells its drivers what packages to deliver, on what days, and at what times. Although drivers may operate multiple delivery routes and hire third parties to help perform their work, they may do so only with FedEx’s consent. FedEx contends its drivers are independent contractors under California law. Plaintiffs, a class of FedEx drivers in California, contend they are employees. We agree with plaintiffs.”

The concurring opinion includes this delightful and appropriate comment:

“Abraham Lincoln reportedly asked, “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?” His answer was, “Four. Calling a dog’s tail a leg does not make it a leg.” Justice Cardozo made the same point in W.B. Worthen Co. v. Kavanaugh, 295 U.S. 56, 62 (1935), counseling us, when called upon to characterize a written enactment, to look to the “underlying reality rather than the form or label.” The California Supreme Court echoed this wisdom in Borello, saying that the “label placed by the parties on their relationship is not dispositive, and subterfuges are not countenanced.’ ”

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